Sunday, January 20, 2013

¡Visca Barça!

Nothing in this world could remove the devotion I feel for Barcelona.

Every time I'm on the Renfe train into the city, the same old man plays harmonious tunes on his accordion. This should become a legal requirement for every entry into a new city. I melt every time. Oh man it's more comforting than the spoonful of Skippy peanut butter I have every day for breakfast.

Barcelona was really the city that took the most out of us. We were on the constant move, and still not quite fully recovered from the night of my birthday nor the night from Hell in the London airport. But there was no time for recovery! Upon our arrival the afternoon of December 31st our French friends (!!!!!!!!!!!!) were ready to get going on the New Year's Celebrations!

Let me take a moment to talk about these French friends of ours. These dashing Europeans! These 4 guys hosted Alex, another friend, and me in Paris 2 years ago through CouchSurfing. We immediately hit it off with this eclectic crew. So funny, so kind, so entertaining, so French (well, that won me over anyway haaaaaaa), such good hosts, such an enchanting group to be around! At all times! They were just some of the greatest people we'd ever met, and every moment we've shared with some has been a pure delight. After our initial trip to visit them in Paris, I returned to Paris to get around to other places I had missed. Our French friends were still as wonderful and hospitable as the first time around. And now here we are, 2 years later, meeting up with them in Barcelona to celebrate New Years! Who woulda thought?! I think we have solidified the permanence of our friendships, et ils savent qu'ils sont toujours invites a Chicago :)

The amount of screaming that occurred when we finally met back up with them was hilarious. Mostly because I think that there was more screaming from the guys' side than ours.What a surreal moment, to be in one of my favorite cities, with my friends from home, and friends from Paris! The first thing we did was grab lunch at some shabby little bar. Undoubtedly the worst meal I've ever had in Spain. But that couldn't bring me down! The beer was good, the company was awesome, and probably the greatest thing about it all was that around our table you could hear the French guys speaking French to each other, us Americans speaking English to each other, me throwing out any and all French phrases that I knew, and me and others speaking Spanish to the waiter. Pure artistry. I would love to live a trilingual life like that someday!

After lunch us Americans took a much needed nap while the French went off to explore or...actually I have no idea what they went to do. All I know is that as soon as my head hit the pillow I was out for the count, undoubtedly drooling, and catching up on the various hours of sleep I'd missed the days before.

When we woke up it was time to make a nice little American-French hybrid family dinner. We wanted to make our French friends a traditional American meal so...we made cheeseburgers. And by we, I mean, Kevin is a huge bossy pants and made it all by himself. But I assembled the salad!!!! Hahaha in turn, our French friends prepared us a french appetizer of sliced baguettes with french cheese, and they also provided our favorite dessert, CREPES! I cannot stress enough the trance I go into when I take a bite of one of these crepes. Our French friends are magicians in the art of crepe-making...

The rest of the New Year's Eve celebrations only got exceedingly more enjoyable. We eventually made it out to my favorite place in Barcelona, Monjuic, with some cava (Spanish champagne) in hand to ring in the new year. Oh it was goooooooorgeous. From 11:50 until about 12:30 there seemed to be a constant stream of cava getting sprayed somewhere up on the top of Montjuic. The illegal vendors of alcohol who linger up there at the top totally made a killing that night! In that same time frame, there was a constant shout of  "BONNE ANNÉE!" Oh man it will be one of the best memories I have of these 8 months in Europe, I'm certain. We didn't complete the tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, unfortunately. Well, we actually didn't really attempt it at all. The grapes at the grocery store we went to looked wrinkly and petrified, so we opted against purchasing them.

Our lovely international group :)
When things started to die down up at Montjuic, we made the mistake of going to a bar to get a round of drinks: 8 euros per glass of wine, 9 euros per pop, 12 euros per beer. HOW DARE THEY. Of course they didn't inform us of the price until after the drinks were poured, and despite my arguing with the waiter we were stuck with these. We made the swift decision to return to the apartment after this to continue celebrations at our apartment. In all honestly, with the awesome company we had all we really needed was shelter and each other in order to have an awesome time! AWWWW

While we may have failed to follow the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, we were not about to miss out on the tradition of eating churros con chocolate for breakfast on New Year's Day. It was my first time having churros this time around in Spain, so I quite enjoyed it. What's better than dipping sugar-coated, deep-fried dough into a cup of melted chocolate? Yes, I did continue to drink the cup of chocolate even after the churros were gone. Oh man, diabetes is knocking on my doorstep.

Kevin and me at Park Guell
After churros we made our way to the vibrantly picturesque Park Guell! It's such a lovely, and lively place. Every time I've been there it has been absolutely loaded with tourists. With good reason, too. The intricate mosaic art you find all over is just sublime. HAY maybe this is where I subconsciously got the inspiration for the wall-hanging mosaic I now have in my room! Well anyway, Park Guell was a blast, and with the lead of Kevin's adventurous little boy nature, we explored some parts of the park I'd never been to. After this park, we took a long stroll with our French friends toward Avenida Diagonal, where the other two Gaudi buildings are located. The stroll itself was utterly enjoyable. There's nothing like getting lost in the city (Shhh I kept telling everyone that I knew where we were going) and then happening upon your desired location.

For dinner that night we headed to the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona for a tapas experience! It was our last meal with our French friends so we enjoyed lots of food and wine together. Looking on the menu I was pleased with the fact that I was very familiar with pretty much all of the tapas listed, although they were from different parts of Spain. For example, one menu item was "Pulpo a la Gallega", which is the octopus served here in Galicia. This meal was also infused with three different languages, and that combined with a slight wine haze made for a great dinner. We ended our night by stopping by a shady bar with strange regulars who chatted us up. Although the location was quite suspect, with the company we had we could have easily been sharing beers in a dumpster and still have had the time of our lives!

Our last full day in Barcelona was a busy one. We woke up and had to say goodbye to our French friends :( Nous nous verrons au printemps, mes amies!  Luckily we had a full day to occupy ourselves and had no time to sulk over this goodbye. We had a tour of La Sagrada Familia, which was AMAZING. The previous times that I've been in Barcelona I've only seen the outside of La Sagrada Familia, and I'm so happy I finally got the chance to go inside. The inside is just another world. So much light, so much intricate architecture, so much color. Go Gaudi!!!
The columns were meant to look like tree trunks, with leaves up at the top

Inside La Sagrada Familia

A colorful stall in La Boqueria
We got a good lunch afterwards, and then made our way to Las Ramblas, the main shopping area in Barcelona. This pedestrian boulevard is a tourist's paradise; it's got any Spanish clothing store you could ever want, along with infinite options for souvenir shops. We slowly made our way down the avenue before arriving to La Boqueria, the large food market! We worked our way through the maze of the stalls, finding awesome smoothies, curious seafood, and so many chocolates and other sweets. The final stop of the day was Barceloneta beach. I had a vague understanding of how to get there, but we ended up walking much farther than I'd originally intended, and I recall regretting my selection of heeled boots for such a long day of traversing the city. Ah well. I was in Barcelona and could not be brought down from the cloud I was constantly in! The beach was cute, and we found a nearby restaurant to serve us some delicious paella. Tired after the limited number of hours of sleep we'd accumulated on the trip, we made our way back to the apartment for some scrubbing down of the partied floors and tables, then we hit the hay. We had an early flight the next morning to our final destination of the trip: Venice!

P.S. We did not have time to visit Camp Nou, nor to stalk Messi. I trust that he knows in his heart that I love him deeply and will have to come back to see him at a later time.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Londres...tu no me gustas...

Tower Bridge
I am going to be honest. I do not like the city of London. I think I am the only person I've ever heard utter those words. I do not like the weather. I don't swoon over British accents. One serving of fish n' chips was enough to last me a lifetime. St. Paul's Cathedral does very little to my spirit. Never in this lifetime will you see me fork over 20 pounds to ride the London Eye. The best part of London very well may be Oxford Street where all the shopping is, but even that consists of maybe 8 different stores that are duplicated once or twice as you go further down the street. Chicago's Magnificent Mile would K.O. Oxford Street in 30 seconds flat.

So now that I have that out of the way and I have offended some people including my best friend, I can start to talk about how, despite my general dislike for London, I was able to experience the pure joy I felt when I was finally reunited with my gringo friends ALEX JILL AND KEVINITO IN LONDON.

The train ride from Ourense to the airport in Santiago could not have taken longer. I slept the entire time at the airport to try to pass the time before my flight. The flight itself to London Stansted took years, and the bus from Stansted to downtown London was late in departing and I swear the bus driver took the long route for a more scenic view. AND FINALLY, ALEX, JILL AND KEVIN COULD NOT HAVE TAKEN LONGER TO ARRIVE TO THE HOSTEL FROM THEIR GHASTLY HARRY POTTER MUSEUM. But finally the moment arrived when I was reunited with them, and it was unreal and joyous  :) :) :)

We immediately went to grab a bite to eat despite our having eaten 3+ meals already that day. I finally got to quench the craving for Indian food that I was so longing for. That's one thing I'll give you, London. You've got 5 different Indian restaurants on every block of the city.

English Breakfast
Our first adventure together started at the London Bridge the next day. It's a filthy old bridge, but you can't not see it. We walked our way toward Tower Bridge, which in my opinion is the best sight of London. We stopped by a restaurant for some traditional English Breakfast. I will give a nod to London for this, too, because it was delectable and I all but licked that plate clean. Here ends the photos of the food I ate on this 10-day trip, because from here on out I was either a) starving and thus impatient, or b) too mesmerized by the mouth-watering food, thus impatient, and in any case I just did not stop to take a picture of my food before consuming every last bite.

Next we made our way toward St. Paul's Cathedral, which is... cute. Hahaha I know Alex will hate me because she is in love with this place but I don't know, St. Paul's just does not do it for me! I have seen numerous cathedrals that are far more beautiful during my travels in Europe. (Here we go. Pretentious Euro Chick comin' right atcha). We went inside to try to sneak a peak without having to pay the 20 pound entrance fee, and I appreciated the heat inside more than the design of the ceilings. I don't know what my problem is!! Maybe I'm just not easy to please!!

Modern Art
Next we stopped at The Tate Modern Art Museum. I'm a bit of a sucker for art museums so this was quite the treat. My favorite piece was constructed from nails in a swirling pattern that gave this illusion of movement and kind of messed with your eyes!

Bread Pudding
Our last stop before heading back to the hostel was Borough Market! I'd actually never made it here in my last trip to London, and I did enjoy it more than I expected to. I mean, how can you not enjoy walking around tasting various cheeses, spreads, jams, and meats? It was like I was back in Jewel-Osco on a Saturday morning heehee. ALSO this is where we each got our dinner, and I found this awesome Thai food whose curry and chicken were insanely delicious and perfectly spicy. It was this awesome shade of green but, again, I went straight to eating this and had no time for photo nonsense. To top it all off I purchased an enormous slice of bread pudding for us to share. This I did happen to take a picture of, but as you can see it's already partially consumed.

Oh, and did I mention that this day happened to be my birthday? :)

We made our way back to the hostel, where Alex, Jill and Kevin took naps and I...starting working on my hair. It's my birthday. I do what I want. That includes taking 1.5-2 hours doing my hair. Hahahahaaa we had a fun night out in London, went on a pub crawl and met some interesting people. I really do feel like I'm getting a bit too old for pub crawls, though. 23 years old, sooooo wise now!! It's funny to remember a year ago for my 22nd birthday I was hobbling around on crutches, and I was totally delirious from my ACL surgery medication. That birthday I made it almost an hour at the restaurant before the incessant throbbing in my leg caused me to call it an early night. A year later, here I am celebrating my birthday in EUROPE, wearing heels all night without the slightest hint of knee problems, alongside some of the greatest friends I have. I'd say that was a nice amount of progress over a year's time!

Ready for the pub crawl on my birthday

Well that was our last night sleeping at the hostel in London. The next night, December 30th, we had plans to sleep at the airport since it was about an hour away from the city center, and we had an early flight. No big deal, right? "WRONG" said EasyBus. "SO. WRONG". But I'll get to that.

Big Ben
During the day of the 30th, we did some more site-seeing which included Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. James Park, and Buckingham Palace. However all day I was patiently waiting for Oxford St. I needed a therapeutic Primark visit! And I was ready to buy myself something pretty at TopShop as a birthday gift to myself. After grabbing lunch at a pub off of Oxford St. (everyone else got fish n' chips, while I got this exquisite chicken and mushroom pot pie. Now I kind of wish I'd taken a picture of it, but in this instance I was starving and finished the whole plate within 5 minutes, I'm sure), it was finally time for some SHOPPING!!!!!!!!

...I totally didn't realize it was Sunday, meaning stores only remained open until 6pm, leaving me less than 90 min to do Oxford St. BOOOOOOO. So I essentially only had enough time to hit up Primark, where all I ended up wanting was a pair of false eyelashes that cost only 1 pound. Not really worth waiting in the 20min long line to pay for the items. So I stole 'em! Just kidding. I left Oxford St. empty handed :( But I did get some pretty pictures of the lights!

All of the liiiiiiiights on Oxford St.
Now it was time to go pick our stuff up from the hostel, eat a light dinner, then head to the airport. No rush, our EasyBus coach wasn't scheduled to leave until 23:30, and it was only around  20:00. I had yet another pot pie for dinner, and did not take a picture of this either. We slowly made our way to the tube to get to the bus stop. We must have been moving significantly more slowly than we'd realized, because after finding out we had to take a detour on the tube, a mini panic quietly settled into our group and we realized we might be late for the bus. When we finally got to the right tube stop we hit the ground running with rolling suitcases in hand because the 23:30 bus departure time was only minutes away. We were totally late, but there were some people waiting ahead of us who assured us that the bus hadn't arrived yet. Okay, cool. When I'd first arrived in London, the EasyBus coach at the airport was also about 20 min late. No big deal, our flight wasn't until the morning, anyway.

So then it was 0:30 (12:30am). There was another EasyBus scheduled to pick up at this time, so we should just be able to hop on that bus!...1:00. Nothing. Mind you, this entire time we were waiting outside in the London windy cold, definitely in 30 degree temperatures. I kept pulling more items of clothing from my suitcase to shield myself from the weather. I put my hands in my pockets and dug my face into my two scarves to try to fall asleep to pass the time. Thank God it hadn't been raining, EasyBus woulda had some frozen corpses to deal with! Not to mention some lawsuits.

We saw some EasyBus coaches going the other direction so we asked a few of the drivers what the deal was. They kept assuring us that more buses would come later. We must have seen 10+ buses going the other direction, and we stopped to talk to 3 or 4. None of them were going to Gatwick airport so they couldn't take us. One coach driver told us the next bus would come at 2:00. Ugh, that's another hour!! I asked the nearby hotel if we could wait in the lobby. "Nope, you can wait outside in that corner. It'll protect you from the wind!" THANK YOU, KIND CITIZEN OF LONDON. We asked the next bus driver where the heck the 2:00 driver was. He said "What are you talking about? The next bus isn't until 3:00". ARE YOU TOYING WITH ME RIGHT NOW. WE HAVE BEEN WAITING IN THE FRIGID COLD IN YOUR DANG CITY FOR 2.5 HOURS AND YOU ARE TELLING ME TO WAIT ANOTHER HOUR?

We opted to take a taxi to the airport. And vowed to never take EasyBus again. I do still have words I'd like to have with them.

Finally we got to the airport and I was able to have a wonderful night of sleep. Just kidding. I got woken up 5 or so times by different people telling me to move and such. Each time I had already passed out into a deep sleep, so you can imagine the pleasantry that awaited each person that woke me. It wasn't until we were on the plane to Barcelona that I felt any sort of relief. Ahhhhh I'm going back home to Spain <3

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Felices Fiestas!

Christmas Tree in Praza Maior

Ah, the day after Christmas. Usually on this day I sleep until 2pm, wake up and eat Christmas leftovers (tamales!!) then go back to bed and watch movies or TV for the rest of the day. Today I woke up at the crack of dawn…er…10am and gave English lessons to a 6 and 3 year-old, packed, cleaned and did laundry until another English lesson at 5pm…packed and finally got in bed for a nap. I’ve had quite the atypical holiday season here in Ourense, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t enjoyable!

Professors' Christmas Dinner
If there's any theme I could enlighten you all with in regards to Spain and the Holidays, it is that they love any excuse to get together for a meal, socializing, and some wine. This has become particularly apparent throughout the month of December. About 2 weeks after Thanksgiving, the professors at my school threw another party, this one at a fancy restaurant to celebrate Christmas. We all got dressed up and met around 10pm for dinner, which was everything I would expect from a nice restaurant: overpriced, measly portions, but the crumbs they do serve you are reaaaaaal delicious and full of flavor! Before the main course I got the chance to try mejillones (mussels), langostinos (king prawn), and various other seafood I can't recall at the moment. I loved it all. This is coming from the girl who strongly disliked seafood before stepping foot on Galician soil.  This restaurant we went to is known for serving ox so I went ahead and tried that as well. They brought out neat little circular stone-top stoves to the table and each person cooked their own sliver of meat. Man it was good!! It was essentially the same texture as steak but with a bit of a different taste, it’s hard to describe, maybe a bit more savory and richer in taste. Buey, as they call it here, is quite expensive and so the meal was 25 euros. Ouch, budget, ouch. Afterwards most of the professors went out for a few drinks in the zona de vinos…overall a very fun night and, just like the cocido party, it was a delight to see all the professors in a relaxed atmosphere and letting their hair loose :)

My friend and me with some students
Once classes let out the Thursday before Christmas, I had a solid week of nothingness to try to fill up before my trip to London/Barcelona/Venice! I had no trouble finding something to do Thursday--this was the night of the students' dinner, but they were not the only class to host a dinner. Every ciclo from A Farixa as well as classes from the university and other schools around Ourense all seemed to be hosting their own dinner Thursday night, so the bars of Ourense were PACKED. My position at A Farixa has allowed me to get the best of both worlds, with both the professors and students being equally inviting, so Thursday night I found myself attending the Christmas dinner with the tourism students. It was not quite as fancy as the professors' dinner, and fortunately not as expensive either! But I still got to try lots of seafood as well as delicious favorites such as croquetas, patatas, and asado.

Saturday I finally made my first trip to las termas de Outariz--the thermal baths that Ourense is known for! Man were they MAJESTICCCCC. You essentially just go from relaxing bath to relaxing bath, with the water temperatures ranging from lukewarm to piping hot. Heavenly, relaxing, meditative, all good things. I will be going back. My house mate Anna left later on Saturday for her Christmas vacation so I was left all on my lonesooooooome. Luckily an Ourense friend saved me from my solitary state and we went out for some drinks with his friends. Our night ended with 5am kebaps, so clearly tuvimos exito that night.

I kept surprisingly busy from Sunday-Thursday. I still gave 5 hours of private English lessons during this time, which in hindsight was hugely advantageous given the amount of spending I did during the London/Barcelona/Venice trip... During these days I also went to see El Hobbit (Allow me to translate: The Hobbit) with a friend, which was shown with Spanish dubbing, and I was proud of my ability to follow the whole movie! I had Christmas Eve dinner as well as Christmas lunch with my student and her family at her grandma's nursing home. While it wasn't the typical environment for Christmas, it made me notice how beautiful it is for families to come spend time with their loved ones in nursing homes. A place which is usually sad and forlorn was actually quite lively and festive with all the extra people, Spanish caroling, and gift exchanges. As cheesy as it sounds, this experience made me think of a quote from my favorite Christmas movie, Love Actually: 

 General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends... If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion... love, actually, is all around.

The cherry on top was being able to Skype with my family as they opened Christmas gifts back in St. Charles, and to see one of my nephews Damian run around recklessly, babbling words with greater frequency every time I see him :)

Later on in the evening I met up with some fellow American Auxiliares in Ourense for some cooking and baking and homemade eggnogging!! The day before my big New Years Trip, the English teacher from A Farixa took me to a nearby village for some GENUINELY DELICIOUS MEXICAN EATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OH MAN CILANTRO GUACAMOLE ENCHILADAS TACOS GALOREEEEEEE. If that weren't enough, she also treated me to some world-renowned (my humble opinion) cañas, cream-filled pastries quite similar to cannoli. The amount of eating I did this afternoon should have served as a precursor to the amount of eating that awaited me in London, Barcelona and Venice. I think I need to go run 50 kilometers before I get to sharing those stories, though.